Dream Theater: Dream Theater – Score: 20th Anniversary World Tour Live with the Octavarium Orchestra

Dream Theater

Longevity is not a trademark of the music industry. Bands run for three to five years, then evaporate, or, if they’re modestly successful, produce an album of greatest hits that soon lands in some clearance aisle for nine bucks. Few acts survive the capriciousness that has come to dominate today’s commercial landscape. The ones that do, like Dream Theater, tend to carve out their own space, and work independent of restrictive labels. They survive through storied perseverance, supported by a legion of like-minded iconoclasts who make certain through bootlegs and bass tabs that this band endures. Dream Theater is nothing short of a phenomenon.

Born 20 years ago in a Berklee College dorm, the masters of progressive metal have become a musical juggernaut, ditching traditional rules (like shopping singles for radio airplay) to write songs that last longer than your average sitcom. They consistently sell out all over the world, and have released several works that many would claim to be the seminal albums of the genre. The scary truth is, there’s no telling if they’ve peaked, yet.

With Score — a double disc, and the band’s fourth live DVD — fans are treated to a milestone performance from a career flush with gems. If you’re hungry for complex arrangements, dynamic time signatures, and cryptic storylines, then you’re in the right place. Even the DVD’s title hints at multiple meanings: A “score” represents the number “20”, but also “a musical composition”, and even “the accomplishment of a team”. Shot in high-definition, digital video, the picture looks bright and alive, even crisper than their 2004 Live at Budokan release. Some might find its translucent packaging to be spare, but it is in the center of this plastic shell that the true treasure lay.

Disc one captures, in its entirety, Dream Theater’s 20th Anniversary Tour finale at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall. Their reward for 20 years of exhaustive touring, Radio City represents the pinnacle of the club circuit: A cosmopolitan venue whose history is legend. It’s big enough to accommodate 6,000 metal minions, while retaining the intimacy a group like Dream Theater thrives on. It’s also in the band’s backyard, as three of its founders were raised on neighboring Long Island (“There’s no place like home!” shouts an elated Mike Portnoy, the band’s drummer and spokesman).

There is a prickly sense of anticipation as the auditorium’s heavy velvet curtain lifts to unveil a group that’s come to define impeccable showmanship. And yet, almost contrary to expectation, Dream Theater strips this landmark performance of its many rock star pretensions, even appearing a bit nervous. The music is paramount on Score. House lights are dimmed, but the theater is not traditionally dark to best display the usual phantasmagoric colors and choreographed strobes all but abandoned. In fact, Labrie’s chiseled features are so well lit; it’s as if we’re watching a daytime soap opera. There’s a bare honesty to this approach. What we get instead of angular lighting and stock pyrotechnics is some incendiary playing by four best-of-breed musicians.

With Dolby Digital 5.1 off the boards, the DVD sounds flawless. It has a clean, even mix, and to my giddy surprise, I actually had to turn the dials down, achieving high levels at half the usual volume. Each instrument seems to own an audio channel, and can be heard distinctly; no small feat given the cacophony this band produces. Even without the video, Score satisfies as a robust audio experience.

Set one opens with “The Root of All Evil”, a lurching piece from their latest album Octavarium that throws some heavy coal on the fire. The staccato drum work and kinetic guitar urgently engage the audience. If the subsequent song selection is a bit perplexing, you’ll just have to trust the band. Portnoy (a fan of the bootleg culture) spends Herculean efforts preparing each show’s set list, so that no two nights are alike. On a 20th Anniversary Tour, this can be a daunting task, since most fans want the goods in a gift bag. Full-blooded works like “Ytse Jam”, “Pull Me Under”, “The Mirror”, and “Take the Time”, are conspicuously left off the plate. The band decides to showcase five new tracks, rather than repeat an older set list that can be found elsewhere in their discography.

Songs like “I Walk Beside You”, and “Innocence Faded” (both relatively short, with saccharine choruses) might have been best served later in the set, but they do succeed in breaking up the marathon jams that lay in wait around every corner. They also highlight the considerable range and lyrical styling that vocalist James Labrie brings to the table. The long-locked singer sounds best when embracing the band’s quieter pieces (“The Spirit Carries On”) though he’s arguably as powerful a presence as any in the band. Nonetheless, Labrie always shows the good taste to leave the stage during band instrumentals (not just solos) for minutes at a time, keeping audience focus on the compositions, rather than a gyrating front man. It’s become a staple of the Dream Theater experience.

As good as the early set is, fans know that the best is yet to come. Old school geeks will sit toward the edge of their seats, as the boys kick into “Another Won” followed by “Afterlife”; a double-barrel dose of bionic bass lines and speed riffing, circa 1989’s When Dream and Day Unite. Bassist John Myung is a terror on the fretless six string — his physical output so intense that he is rumored to actually warm down after shows. Portnoy, too, is a thrill to watch, as he wreaks havoc over ‘the Albino Monster’ (a many-headed hydra of toms and cymbals). Anyone unfamiliar with the youngest percussionist ever to be inducted into the Drummer Hall of Fame will be astonished at his volcanic abilities behind the kit.

Backed by three screens, which flash the year and art from the song they’re about to play, the band delivers with a choreographed precision usually reserved for traditional theater. At times it feels like an Oscar montage, but this pedantic approach helps shepherd everyone down memory lane. And it’s some ride. Portnoy, also the film’s director, inhabits the camera with an assured, conservative eye for what viewers want. The abundant close-ups are tight and unhurried, showcasing each player in comfortable intervals. We get long, square shots of the jackhammer beats and dizzying solos that have made this band famous. When the camera shadows Jordan Rudess for a mind-bending ride on his Haken Continuum Fingerboard, we’re right in the thick of his mad wizardry. For the prog-metal enthusiast, it’s a golden ticket. The DVD also makes good use of split-screen boxes to showcase dueling attacks, two players at a time. Without flashy cuts, there’s nothing but skin-searing talent on display. Beware! These jaw-dropping technical chops may put an end to the aspirations of many a gunslinger.

The chronology continues with “Under a Glass Moon”, from their seminal 1992 production Images and Words. It’s a concert highlight blessed with John Petrucci’s gorgeous solo, ranked by Guitar World as one of the Top 100 of all time. It is here that we first glimpse DT’s trademark versatility, as Jordan Rudess inserts a playful (and impromptu) circus melody during the extended instrumental break. Improvisation is de rigueur with musicians of this caliber, as if they need to challenge themselves as much as the audience. Any one of these guys could perform Paganini’s 24 Caprices blindfolded, but they don’t walk through a single song, instead playing with a verve and velocity that belies their fearsome skill.

Warmed to a crackling fire, everyone’s ready for the second set. And it’s a good thing, since it promises to be nearly twice as long as the 60-minute opener. The camera keeps shooting in real-time as the band leaves the stage, but when the lights come up moments later, instead of Marshall stacks, we’re facing the cellos and French horns of a 30-piece orchestra. It’s a grand moment, akin to the curtain opening on the Academy Awards. As a familiar overture unfolds, it becomes strikingly clear (as if it wasn’t already) that this group means business. The composition — from “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” — is in turns light and bombastic, but above all, immensely catchy. I got grape-sized goose bumps when the stoic violinists, cheered loudly by a feverish audience, betrayed their characteristic poise with little smiles. Even the seasoned First Chairs are chilled by the fan reaction. Watching their body language, one can’t help but draw comparisons between these chamber musicians and the band. Their seriousness and singular focus are the same (well, except for Portnoy, who apes around like Animal from the Muppet Show). Dream Theater is as accomplished an ensemble as any orchestra, and here they prove it.

Ten minutes later, the band rejoins us, beginning their ambitious “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence”, a 43-minute opus on mental illness. With the superb “War Inside My Head”, the band displays pitch-perfect command, interplaying with the Octavarium Orchestra, as they both deliver thunderous sounds, without drowning one another out. The pomp and circumstance missing from Score’s opening set has now fully evolved into a sensory cornucopia, and the band is clearly having fun. Portnoy’s direction behind the camera adjusts to include orchestra and crowd shots, framing the musicians against a frenzied throng of thousands, doubling the spectacle.

Set two incorporates some elegantly quiet moments like “Vacant Mind” and “The Answer Lies Within”, before diving angrily into the 9/11 firestorm “Sacrificed Sons”, during which Portnoy stands to play his drums with conviction. An undeniable passion retakes the band while footage of a collapsing World Trade Center runs eerily in the background, and one realizes that these songs aren’t always esoteric indulgences. The band closes with its 24-minute title track to “Octavarium”, another conceptual show-stopper that features Rudess and Petrucci in mirrored keyboard/guitar runs, with an accompanying animated breakdown that leaves the audience breathless. Onscreen, it’s even more impressive; offering viewers at home the same advantage one enjoys when watching televised sports: Plays are sharper, and close-ups capture every tapping finger down to the knuckle. Rudess’ deft hands dance over the keys so fast; it’s a wonder his synapses can keep up. He earns some of the best screen time here, silhouetted in an aura of blue light against the orb-like profile of Radio City Music Hall. It’s electrifying to see him finally assume his place as the band’s definitive keyboardist.

As their lone encore, fans finally get what most agree is the band’s piece de resistance, “Metropolis”. When fellow Berklee star Jamshied Sharifi and his orchestra play the opening notes to this fourteen year old classic, one feels as if all of our — and the band’s — dreams have come to fruition, right here in the heart of America’s greatest metropolis, New York City. It’s a fitting end, connecting many of the archetypal themes employed throughout the night. When the lights come up, and nearly two score musicians stand to applause, it feels like you’ve just experienced three hours of live theater… which, of course, you have.

If disc one is the filet, disc two is the crème Brule — and some of you might want to consume it first. The Score So Far, a 60-minute documentary, is the centerpiece of this bonus DVD, at last giving fans the band biography they’ve wanted for years. We learn that their auspicious musical beginnings (as Majesty) were peppered with personnel and studio conflicts. In two decades they’ve changed names, seen three keyboardists, three singers, and half a dozen labels. So it’s gratifying to watch the now uber-successful Myung, Portnoy, and Petrucci walk the old dorm halls of Berklee, reminiscing about the early days, while Mike laments, “Once the music industry became involved, they ruined all the fun.”

These are funny, grounded guys, who remain friends with each other, and every ex-member, even now. Interviews with one-time singer Charlie Dominici, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian are honest, but kind, portraits of how things don’t always work out. All throughout, the band members are candid and enthusiastic. Their integrity is refreshing, and in many ways The Score So Far feels like the antithesis to Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster. The documentary concludes with an awestruck James Labrie gaping at an empty Radio City venue, hours before the anniversary show, and serves as an exhilarating lead-in to the main event.

The bonus disc also includes live footage from three as-yet-unreleased Dream Theater performances, but be warned: The audio and video are wildly uneven. Thankfully, there are some diamonds in the rough, such as the end credits, which splice video from a 1985 Majesty demo of “Raise the Knife” (lead by Chris Collins) with Dream Theater’s performance of the same song, two decades later. But the crown jewel has got to be Mika Tyyska’s trippy animated short, featured briefly during disc one’s live version of “Octavarium”. You’ll never look at these guys the same way.

Incomparable after 20 years, Dream Theater is a category five hurricane. Score captures the band’s impeccable musicianship and collaborative abilities in spectacular fashion, and for $20 it’s a steal. If you’re a serious fan of high-octane rock, or are considering a Masters class in music theory, put this on your wish list. It may not boast the ideal set for those uninitiated (check out Once in a Livetime), but it’s a score for everyone else.

RATING 8 / 10